This afternoon, I am driving to Totnes in Devon with comedian Matt Roper, who has started to describe himself as a homeless vagabond, though I prefer to think of him as an itinerant purveyor of comedic entertainment.
Being a ‘vagabond’ might imply dubious liaisons with women and goats… Of which more later.
Matt Roper claims I will like Totnes, because it is full of interesting creative people.
Martin & Vivienne at home last night
Coincidentally, last night, my eternally-un-named friend and I had dinner at Vivienne & Martin Soan’s home in South East London. Martin created comedy group The Greatest Show on Legs, famed for their naked balloon dance which included late godfather of UK alternative comedy Malcolm Hardee.
“Totnes is where we created the balloon dance,” Martin told me over dinner.
“I’ve never been there,” I said.
“It’s like a little model village,” explained Martin. “Perfect in every way. But full scale. Divorced rock ‘n’ roll wives in the 1970s decided that it was a good place to live.
“Malcolm had a liaison with one of these ex wives – I think she was an ex-wife of one of The Small Faces – and all these rock chicks had moved down there and just three miles up the road was Dartington College, which was the very first ‘free’ school which was very liberal and encouraged dramatic arts.
Totnes – like a model village but real… or is it maybe surreal?
“Totnes is like The Village in The Prisoner. It is perfect in every way. Not too many people. You have your drunks and you have your council house people. But, basically, all the locals have had four generations of acid-taking liberalism. Even the council-house crack-addict coke-head element has been gentrified and you get amazing sights.
“There used to be this one guy with a great big Afghan hound, an Edwardian suit and a waxed moustache who walked up and down like some latter-day rake.
“In the church, where Malcolm got off with a girl called Lucy The Goat Lady… That sounds very demeaning, but nicknames are easier to remember than real names… Her name was Lucy…
Crowley “the wickedest man in the world”
“She said we could stay at her place, a big rambling farmhouse which belonged to Dick Heckstall-Smith, the English jazz saxophonist and in the grounds was this de-consecrated church. It had been de-consecrated because the occultist Aleister Crowley had bought the house years before and done secret ceremonies late at night. When the locals found out, they had the church de-consecrated.
“And, in the kitchen of the house,” Martin continued, “the Greatest Show on Legs reacted to the local extreme, over-the-top feminists who were living in this land of privilege and having weekly meetings about how they could wipe out Chinese foot-binding in Devon. Shit. They were all living in a bubble, really. It was our reaction to that. We thought up the balloon dance in the kitchen and we went to the Dartmouth Inn that night and premiered it.”
My eternally-un-named friend was a bit surprised.
“It was a reaction to feminists wanting to ban foot-binding in Devon?” she asked.
“The Greatest Show on Legs were feminists,” said Martin. “We weren’t sexist in any way.”
“That’s what I thought – sort of,” said my eternally-un-named friend, who knew Malcolm and Martin before I did.
“Though,” said Martin’s wife Vivienne, “they antagonised feminists all over the place.”
“Yes,” said Martin, “but they were feminists who weren’t really thinking. In actual fact, we were rather gallant as a group of performers.”
“You just went round fucking everybody in sight,” said Vivienne.
(From left) Malcolm Hardee, Paul Wiseman, Martin Soan possibly/probably in the 1980s (Photograph by Steve Taylor)
“I was trying,” said Martin, “to think of a rather more poetic or lyrical way of putting it… We were young men and we enjoyed ourselves, but we did it in a rather gallant way.”
“After you, Malcolm…,” suggested Vivienne. “No, after you, Martin… Oops, sorry Malcolm… After you…”
“But, getting back to the balloon dance,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “What year was that?”
“I can’t remember,” said Martin.
“It would have been the 1970s, early 1980s,” suggested Vivienne.
“It’s like writing Malcolm’s autobiography,” I said. “He never knew which decade things happened in either.”
“Anyway,” said my eternally-un-named friend, “in this kitchen, you suddenly thought Ooh! Let’s do a strip with balloons!”
“Because,” explained Vivienne, “they were reacting against the ultra-feminists who were trying to create a storm about Chinese foot-binding.”
“I don’t quite see the connection,” said my eternally-un-named friend.
“We arrived there,” said Martin, “and just thought This is sick. They’re living in their own world. Everything’s perfect. What right have they got to complain? They’ve got nothing to complain about. To start being over-the-top feminists in such a rarified atmosphere… It just antagonised us….
“So we thought: I know! We’ll fucking take our kit off! And we were laughing. We were not thinking about it as creating a routine. It was as much a joke for ourselves. A stunt. Let’s take our kit off! But it went down such a storm that night, Malcolm and I thought Right. Let’s keep it in the show.”
Martin Soan enters his living room last night in SE London
“So,” said Vivienne, “Totnes is now full of creative people who are probably all the children of these feminists.”
“And this goat woman…” asked my eternally-un-named friend. “She would be about 60 now?”
“Probably,” mused Martin. “Older. She was older than us.”
“She had a goat?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
“She did have a goat,” replied Martin.
“Is that why she was called Goat Woman?”
“Goat Lady,” corrected Martin. “Not Goat Woman.”
“The Greatest Show on Legs were always very gallant,” I said. “What was the goat called?”
“John,” said Martin reprovingly, “I don’t know what the fucking goat was called. It didn’t have a name. I would have loved it if the goat had been introduced to me, but it was just there as the goat.”
“But goats have names, too,” I protested. “Bob Slayer went round Australia with Gary The Goat.”
“That’s slightly different,” said Martin.
“You’re the one who calls women ‘ladies’,” I argued. “Goats deserve respect too.”
“Eat your pudding,” said Vivienne.